A culture may be called decadent when its members exult in what they are, rather than strive to become what they should be.
What characterizes the protagonists of great fiction in an ascendant culture? It is that they are not yet what they should be. The characters of Western literature in its time of flowering either must overcome defining flaws, or come to grief.
The more one wallows in one’s inner feelings, of course, the more anxious one becomes. Permit me to state without equivocation that your innermost feelings, whoever you might be, are commonplace, dull, and tawdry. Thrown back upon one’s feelings, one does not become a Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, but a petulant, self-indulgent bore with an aversion to mirrors.
One of the great myths of our modern self-esteem cuture is that there is such a thing as your “authentic self,” and that to do anything other than what you feel you want to do is somehow phony. Children are taught to have self-esteem whether or not they deserve it. That is: feeling good about oneself is decoupled from actually doing anything worth feeling good about. It’s a profoundly damaging thing to believe. If you are already perfect just the way you are, why bother doing anything at all? (Andrew Sullivan said it better than I can in Time.)
One can get away with this kind of soft-headed sophistry in a comfortable society and a robust economy that has been built on the hard-work, sacrifice, drive, and yes, ambition of millions of progenitors. In moments of true crisis (and no, wondering what you are going to do after graduation does not count as a crisis), the absolute worthlessness of people who operate this way is exposed. Who would you rather be in a foxhole with: a boy who thinks he’s special no matter what he does; or a man who questions his worthiness unless it is backed up by measurable action?
It’s a short hop from the self-esteem culture to a common mistake people make when they read this blog and other writings on similar topics. The complaint goes like this: “You are being inauthentic. You are being phony. If you knowingly calibrate your actions based on careful study of human nature, you are being manipulative and just a sad human being.”
Let me tackle the “manipulative” charge first, because that’s easiest. In any social situation, in any situation whatsoever, a person has things they desire and things they do not. When you go to the coffee shop to get a cup of coffee, you are acting on a set of desires. That’s obvious, and not evil at all. It’s just getting some coffee.
“Well fine,” says the arguer, “but what about when your desires involve other people?” To which I reply, it’s exactly the same. When you are having a laugh with a friend, it’s because you want to. When you get angry at someone who cuts you off, it’s because —in that moment, at least— you want to. And when you talk to a pretty girl, whether you use game or not, it’s because you want to be with her (whether as a friend or a lover or both, it makes no difference). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this either. Of course, when other people are involved, they may have desires counter to your own, and that’s where human interaction gets so famously sticky. But the mere presence of other actors does not make one’s own actions wrong.
Finally, on the charge of being “manipulative,” I’d also point out that I’m not using my knowledge and skills to hurt anyone, cheat anyone, or steal from anyone. I don’t “trick” women into bed. I just put myself in the best light possible. It has been and always will be up to her to decide if she wants to comply. Calling game manipulative is like calling a job applicant manipulative because he shows up for the interview wearing a sharp tie and a crisply pressed suit. Should he come dressed like an unshaven slob because that’s somehow more “real”?
So much for that. But what about the “phony and inauthentic” charge? To even level such a charge, someone has to be operating from the assumption that everything he or she does, feels, or thinks is magically sui generis, and uninfluenced by any outside factor at all. A special soul, or little set-apart homonculous in the brain that operates the machinery of the body and speech. Of course, this is a patently absurd assesrtion, which is why no one ever actually asserts it. (Your very ability to read this sentence, which feels so natural and easy to do, is predicated on an incredibly long list of environmental factors, not least of which is you happen to have grown up hearing and reading English all around you and not, say, Swahili.)
But logical assertion is not the strength of our little straw man. He just feels that what others are doing is inauthentic. He can never exactly say why. In the self-esteem culture, it’s enough to feel one’s way smugly through life, and never back things up with reason or, heaven forfend, action. It was not always thus. There have been many cultures, including our own North American one not so long ago, in which feelings might have made for interesting discussion, but in which it was far more important to analyze a situation and act accordingly. The discoveries surrounding modern physics, modern cellular biology, and modern computing felt strange and foreign at one time, too. But behold the wonders we have wrought: space flight, the polio vaccine, and this blog, natch.
The irony of the advance of biological anthropology and the study of cognitive biases is that it has come in an age in which (most) people are less prone to put in the hard work and study necessary to make use of it. Because their sense of self-worth is caught up in daily affirmations rather than daily action. They are like Holden Caulfield, so befuddled in a haze of “authenticity” that cheerful, direct action actually offends them in some vague though tangible way. Everything’s crumby, don’t you know?
And the grandest irony of all is that those in the “authenticity” camp have world-views that are every bit as socially and biologically constructed as those who see through the illusion. They just don’t have the courage or the intelligence to admit it.
However you, dear reader, can use this to your advantage. Sometimes people worry about “game saturation.” You only need worry about this if you are using canned one-liners from Neil Strauss’s book. If your game is based on a solid understanding of human cognitive biases and human social dynamics, you’re already well on your way to a solid and lasting happiness determined by decisive, informed action — and no book or movement will alter that.